Vote to legalize marijuana could be back in 2018

David Wisniewski and Alex Gentry, organizers of a petition drive to legalize marijuana, chat with reporters Thursday after filing the paperwork to start gathering signatures to put the measure on the 2018 ballot. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

David Wisniewski and Alex Gentry, organizers of a petition drive to legalize marijuana, chat with reporters Thursday after filing the paperwork to start gathering signatures to put the measure on the 2018 ballot. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

PHOENIX – Voters may get another chance next year to legalize marijuana use by adults.

Members of a group called Safer Arizona 2018 filed the paperwork Thursday with the secretary of state’s office to begin collecting signatures to put the issue on the ballot. They need 150,642 valid signatures by July 5, 2018 to qualify.

Proposition 205 which proposed a similar change last year failed by a narrow margin. But David Wisniewski, this group’s executive director, said there are some significant differences that will make this proposal more acceptable.

The big one is that removes all criminal penalties for the possession of marijuana. That compares with Proposition 205 which limited possession to an ounce and preserved other laws about illegal sales to those younger than 21.

“This is the real deal,’’ he said.

“This is actually repealing prohibition so there are no criminal penalties associated with cannabis,’’ Wisniewski continued. “And things left over, like selling to a minor or selling without a license, we hit those with fines.’’

Potentially more significant, this measure would allow any licensed retailer to sell the drug. That means any grocery store, tobacco shop or convenience store.

And the prohibition against being located near schools and churches that exists for liquor stores and bars -- and was part of Proposition 205 -- is not part of this measure.

Proposition 205, by contrast, also limited sales to a set number of state-licensed dispensaries with some limits on where they could be located. And it gave first preference to those who already are operating medical marijuana shops, a restriction that caused some criticism even by supporters of legalized marijuana.

There’s one other big difference: Wisniewski said he believes he can get the required signatures with an all-volunteer effort, something that has not been done in decades.

“We’re living in a different time,’’ he said.

“With social media we’re reaching literally hundreds of thousands of people a week,’’ Wisniewski said. “We have hundreds and hundreds of people begging to be a part of our cannabis campaign.’’

He conceded, though, that if he gets the necessary signatures it will take money to conduct an actual campaign.

If Proposition 205 is any indication, opponents of legalization will have plenty of cash. They spent close to $6.2 million, including close to $1.5 million from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry alone.

It also is virtually certain to get opposition from prosecutors who helped organize the campaign against Proposition 205.

The new initiative lacks some things that were put in to Proposition 205 in a bid to attract votes. One of those is a special 15 percent tax, with some of the dollars earmarked for education once the expenses of policing the initiative were paid.

Wisniewski said backers do want the taxes raised to benefit education. But he said they see no reason to levy a special tax on marijuana above and beyond the state’s regular 5.6 percent sales tax.

While there would be no limits to how much marijuana someone could possess, there would be a cap on cultivation of 48 plants. Anyone wanting to grow more would have to get a special permit from the state Department of Agriculture.

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